Are you a ‘good writer’?

When it comes to complicated relationships of self-love and self-loathing, few people can compete with writers. We’re a strange and complex collective. One minute we’re convinced we’ve written the next Gatsby or Caulfield; the next minute we’ve decided that every word we’ve ever written is pointless drivel that should never see the light of day. We seek reassurance through publication credits, agent offers and book deals, only to discover that while each of these is validating and triumphant, it doesn’t necessarily quell the chiming voices in our heads that tell us we suck.

Early rejections. Back when people still used the Post Office.
Early rejections. Back when people still used the Post Office.

I’ve heard people say—more times than I can count—that fiction is subjective and talent can’t be taught. While I agree that fiction is subjective, there remains a stark difference between Good Writing and Bad Writing. There are plenty of books packed with Good Writing that I don’t want to read, but there are few books of Bad Writing that anyone would want to read. Is the goodness subjective? Yes, to a point. But then there’s just bad writing.

So: How do you know when you’re Good?

Before I published my first short story, I looked to family and friends to tell me I was “good.” (Or “bad,” which is what most writers secretly suspect that they are). Naturally, family and friends always thought I was a Good Writer, but I was convinced they were humoring me—which family and friends usually do in these types of situations. So I sought validation through writing colleagues. They agreed that I was pretty Good. But that chiming voice was still there. I decided I needed a publication credit to quash it, so I got one.

That worked. For about fifteen minutes.

I got more publication credits. I got offers from agents. I got a two-book deal. And yet that everlasting voice is still there, ready with a string of Yes, buts.

I’ve finally learned to accept that no matter how many hat-feathers come with the traditional ideal of what it means to be a Good Writer, the secret doubtful voice will always be there. Oftentimes that secret doubtful voice is one of tortured inspiration, pushing me to make sure that what I write is Good, even if I’ll never think it actually is.

So what are the hallmarks of a Good Writer? Is it someone who knows where to place all the commas? Partly, if we’re talking technique. But if we’re talking nitty-gritty, I’d say that Good Writers are those who write because they have to—it’s a need more than a choice. Good Writers constantly strive to quell the doubting voices in their heads, because they know that even if they write well, they can always write better. Good Writers read and are inspired by lots of Good Writing; it’s something they can’t live without, like water or air. Good Writers understand that even if talent can’t be taught, skill can—and simply having the talent isn’t enough.

Originally published in Flash Fiction Chronicles.

More Writerly Ramblings.

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